Lions and cheetahs have returned to a part of South Africa’s Great Karoo after a family’s rewilding effort

29th January, 2022.      //   General Interest  // 

Lions and cheetahs previously frequented the Great Karoo, a huge semi-arid desert in South Africa. Then came the farms, the fences, and the guns. Lions were extinct by the 1840s, followed by cheetahs by the 1870s.
In the Eastern Cape, much of what is now the Samara Private Game Reserve was once a cattle ranch. That was until 1997, when thousands of acres of land were once again given to nature to run its course. Cheetahs and lions have not only returned to this section of South Africa after 25 years of carefully managed rewilding, but they’re also flourishing.

Mark and Sarah Tompkins’ vision was instrumental in the successful reintroduction of these huge animals.
Over the course of five years, the couple purchased 11 properties totaling 27,000 hectares (67,000 acres) with the goal of restoring the land to its former grandeur. Isabelle Tompkins, their eldest daughter and Samara’s business development manager, notes, “It wasn’t a wild place.” “The predators that would accompany the migrating animals, as well as the predators that would accompany them, were effectively shut out.”

The flora of the area resurfaced over time. The reserve is surrounded by forests and grasslands, rivers and streams, mountains and valleys, and provides habitat and grazing for herbivores (approximately 20 antelope species reside there now) as well as megaherbivores like elephants. She continues, “We’ve slowly been putting together the pieces of the puzzle of what this ecosystem would have looked like.”

Predators could be reintroduced if there is enough food. For the first time in 130 years, cheetahs were brought back to the area in 2003. Female Sibella became an emblem of Samara and its prosperity among the first three people. She was attacked by hunting dogs and people when she was two years old, and after life-saving surgery and recuperation, she was brought to Samara. She gave birth to 20 cubs in her new home and raised all but one of them to adulthood before dying of natural causes in 2015.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project has reintroduced 50 cubs to the reserve, and the population has grown to the point where many of them have been transferred to other reserves and national parks. In return, other cheetahs are brought to Samara in order to increase genetic diversity.

The king’s return
The climate was suitable to bring back lions once cheetah territories were created, a significant milestone for both Samara and the Great Karoo region.
In January 2019, male Titus and female Sikelele were introduced, and female Sheba was soon after. According to the Tompkins, two years later, Sikelele has given birth to two litters, one of whom is Sheba, and the reserve’s first litter is now hunting on their own on occasion.

The apex predator, lions, were always going to have a major impact, says Tompkins.
The dynamic of Samara has changed as a result of the return of lions to the country. There are now more carcasses for jackals to scavenge on, resulting in a decrease in springbok predation and an increase in population. According to the Tompkins, black wildebeest, on the other hand, are generating more calves as a result of lions preying on the species.

The rewilding initiative has been so successful that the leopard has returned to Samara of its own will. Leopards may leap over fences, and a large male leopard was observed inside the reserve in April 2021, and he was routinely seen on video traps over the next few months. In an email, Isabelle and Sarah Tompkins wrote, “(It) is tremendously thrilling and signifies that the conditions are good again for its survival.”

When it comes to this, “we don’t have the luxury of not being ambitious”
The tourism operations of Samara Private Nature Reserve help to pay the rewilding efforts. Luxury safaris and cheetah tracking are available, as well as staying in lodges or sleeping under the stars, and all profits are reinvested in the reserve’s numerous activities. But perhaps its greatest plan extends beyond Samara’s borders. The reserve is involved in a long-term initiative to create a land corridor linking the Karoo’s Camdeboo National Park and Mountain Zebra National Park, opening up historical migratory routes and returning more land to nature. The Tompkins say it has the potential to be arguably “the last great mega-reserve in South Africa” covering 1.3 million acres (over 526,000 hectares). The area is one of 36 global biodiversity hotspots, but will rely on voluntary agreements with private landowners to manage the area in an environmentally friendly manner, rather than involve land purchases by the government body overseeing national parks. Thinking big has always been part of Samara’s ethos, but there’s added urgency provided by the United Nation’s ongoing Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. The initiative says that restoring just 15% of converted lands in priority areas worldwide could avoid 60% of expected species extinctions, along with myriad climate and livelihood-related benefits. “We’re running out of time,” Isabelle says, citing the UN’s goals. “This to me is why it’s so urgent. It has to happen. We don’t have the luxury of not being ambitious about this.”
Nevertheless, she’s optimistic about the future. “I think that if human beings can focus on their sphere of influence, and on making a difference in their own little backyard (positive change will come),” she adds. “Our backyard just happens to be 27,000 hectares.”

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